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With fall camp underway across the board, the hype for opening night is full speed ahead. The first weekend for the Big Ten East features inter-conference bouts between Minnesota and Ohio State on Thursday, September 2nd. Also, Penn State travels to Madison on September 4th to play some badger ball with Wisconsin. This matchup will be a crucial contest that could weigh heavily in conference standings come November.
Week two features a PAC-12 road trip to the Midwest as the Buckeyes welcome the Oregon Ducks to Columbus. Also, the Michigan Wolverines host Washington in a “Maize Out” to see if the Huskies have any bite in their barks. The Big Ten can get off to a hot start and really put a wrench in the CFP hopes for the PAC-12.
We can’t forget the week three showdown where Auburn heads to Happy Valley, either. This will be a game that both the SEC and Big Ten would like to see their conference counterpart come away with a victory. Just talking about these matchups gets the juices flowing for me.
Now that we’ve set the stage for the 2021 season, let’s take a look at some players who will be the real “make or break” guys for their squads:
Indiana Hoosiers: LB Micah McFadden
There’s no questioning that McFadden is the heartbeat of the Hoosier defense. He’s a perfect mix of size, speed and strength to cause a plethora of problems for offenses across the conference. His abilities to play the pass or stuff the run are a pleasure to watch.
Where he really excels is in obvious passing situations, where he’s allowed to pin the ears back and go. Under the direction of Kane Wommack last season, the Hoosiers loved to send pressure by blitzing both linebackers right up the middle. New coordinator Charlton Warren needs to continue this effective part of the Hoosiers’ defense, which created a ton of sacks and 20 takeaways in only eight games. McFadden alone can be a game-changer if allowed to replicate his performance from last year.
Maryland Terrapins: DT Mosiah Nasili-Kite
Originally a talented JUCO player, Nasili-Kite arrived in College Park ready to rumble. He’s a perfectly built defensive tackle who has an incredible motor. The ability to eat blocks and even play off of double teams to lunge into the hole for a stop is really amazing to see.
Maryland plays a cross-divisional matchup with Iowa, and of course the yearly bout with Michigan State. Nasili-Kite will prove just as vital in these games against power run schemes as he will against the spread attacks. Leading the team in sacks last season was no fluke, and I fully expect a dominant 2021 from this rising star.
Michigan Wolverines: S Daxton Hill
When you look at where Michigan struggled under former defensive coordinator Don Brown, it was in the passing game. The Wolverines do boast a talented defensive line, with players like Aidan Hutchinson and Chris Hinton. They won’t always be able to get to the quarterback though, and that’s why Hill is so important.
A former five-star talent and the top safety recruit in the class of 2019, Hill was destined to be the next Charles Woodson for Jim Harbaugh. He’s a disruptor who can create incompletions in coverage and can line up the ball carriers for the knockout blow. New coordinator Mike Macdonald will have to lean on Hill to establish the culture for his secondary going forward.
Michigan State Spartans: DB Michael Dowell
A year ago the Spartans had five interceptions as a team, but Shakur Brown had all five of them. He’s off to the NFL now, which means there have to be some players stepping up in the secondary. The one individual I targeted here was Dowell.
He’s capable of playing almost anywhere in the secondary but has been primarily working out of the nickel spot. This means that he’s always going to be on the field in passing situations, so it’s imperative to come up big. If he can wrap it all together and continue to progress in both pass and rush defense, then the Spartans may be able to help themselves by getting off the field on third downs.
Ohio State Buckeyes: CB Sevyn Banks
If Ohio State wants to execute Kerry Coombs’ aggressive scheme, he’ll need lockdown corners. His 2016 defense was one of the best in program history, as it boasted talents like Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Denzel Ward and Malik Hooker. All of these guys were first-round draft picks, which seems to be the standard for the self-proclaimed “DBU” which they refer to themselves as “BIA” (Best In America).
The scheme is tight press man coverage with safety help over the top, which albeit is always a little risky. However, when performed properly it is a nightmare moving the football. Banks has the potential to be that lockdown guy Coombs will call upon to guard the top wideout. If he can do his job, unlike Shaun Wade last season, then all the other pieces of the defense will fall into place.
Penn State Nittany Lions: SS Jaquan Brisker
Being a Nittany Lion is fitting for Brisker because all I see is one angry cat. He has the skills to bring anyone down in space with the football and shoots out of a cannon coming downhill. He’s incredible at timing his hits downfield – right as the receiver gets the ball he’s there to obliterate them.
One thing I really love watching is his eyes. Brisker doesn’t get fooled and will really track the play down before he takes off. Those read and react skills will play a huge role in the middle of the field because, in all honesty, Penn State should have good coverage outside with Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr..
Rutgers Scarlet Knights: MLB Olakunle Fatukasi
Fatukasi, just like many other players on the cusp of NFL talent, returned for his extra year of eligibility. His performance last year was nothing short of admirable, coming away with 101 tackles in only nine games. This included an 18 tackle performance against Penn State, as well as a total of five games over the 13 tackle mark.
There’s no denying that his ability to make stops was critical for the Scarlet Knights last year. With another season at the same pace he was playing in 2020, Fatukasi could finish with quite a Big Ten legacy. Currently, Fatukasi is sitting there with 209 career stops to his name, and if Rutgers can get a bowl game next season, a 13 game schedule could put him around 145 tackles. That total of 354 would place him at 10th on the all-time tackle leaders list in Big Ten history.